Being a founder, entrepreneur, or a business owner can have many exciting and thrilling moments. But it is also punctuated with periods of doubt, slump, and anxiety. So how does one successfully and healthily ride the highs and lows of Entrepreneurship? In this series, called “How To Successfully Ride The Emotional Highs & Lows Of Being An Entrepreneur“ we are talking to successful entrepreneurs who can share stories from their experience. I had the pleasure of interviewing Jennifer Lapka.
Jennifer Lapka is a nonprofit specialist and champion of our fashion and art communities. Her career includes stops at institutions in London and Gateshead, England and Kansas City, including: BALTIC Centre for Contemporary Art, Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts, Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art, and Victoria & Albert Museum. She founded Rightfully Sewn, an organization creating jobs and opportunity through the business of fashion. The organization pursues its mission through a seamstress training program, a fashion designer professional development program, public sewing classes and apparel production services.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dive in, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?
Jennifer Lapka: I like to call myself a mutated prairie mouse. Having grown up in central Kansas, I had limited access to many things, including other cultures and liberal thinking. On the flip side, I was lucky to have been born to loving parents and have a direct connection to nature. My mother taught me about art and the importance of community-mindedness. My father taught me the importance of how to budget and work hard for what I want in life. I paid my own way for an art history undergraduate degree in Kansas and received a scholarship to undertake a museum studies master’s degree in northeast England. While there, I lived in international student accommodation with Syrians, French, Taiwanese, Barbadians, Africans and Danes, which was sensitizing, eye-opening. Thereafter, I landed in London, working at the Victoria & Albert Museum, which has an extraordinary fashion collection and program called Fashion in Motion; it was there I realized fashion is art.
What was the “Aha Moment” that led to the idea for your current company? Can you share that story with us?
Jennifer Lapka: Rightfully Sewn is an amalgamation of my career, which includes nonprofit fundraising, community volunteerism, art museums and fashion productions. The idea was formed over a period of time when I was working for the late and great Henry Bloch, who was the “H” in H&R Block. He was an incredibly kind, intelligent and philanthropic person who taught, “As soon as you have three meals a day, it’s time to help the next person.” I was part of a small team that operated The H & R Block Foundation and the Marion and Henry Bloch Family Foundation, which are based in Kansas City. We would give grants to many organizations in the Kansas City area, including many of the social service agencies Rightfully Sewn partners with today. Simultaneously while at the foundations, I was producing an annual fashion show and getting to
know my community’s landscape of fashion designers and the challenges they face when trying to start their businesses. Thus, the idea of Rightfully Sewn was born and it was honed through a business development program called Kauffman FastTrac. The idea is multi-faceted: to empower people who have obstacles to employment through work training, help sewing businesses grow with skilled
seamstresses, retain fashion entrepreneurs in our community and strengthen domestic manufacturing. In short, I wanted to create jobs and opportunities through the business of fashion.
In your opinion, were you a natural born entrepreneur or did you develop that aptitude later on? Can you explain what you mean?
Jennifer Lapka: During my early career I was asked to take several personality tests; I was always ranked as “risk averse,” so I’m not sure how I ended up an entrepreneur. Growing up, I was very shy, never spoke my mind and wouldn’t stand up for myself. However, in my late 20s I realized I had a responsibility to use my position, privilege and connections to help others. I had to empower myself in order to empower others and in order to do so, I had to find my voice. I still get nervous during interviews, staff meetings and public talks, but I overcome that by putting in the time to prepare and practice the points I want to get across.
Was there somebody in your life who inspired or helped you to start your journey with your business? Can you share a story with us?
Jennifer Lapka: One of my favorite sayings, which I took the liberty of updating, is “No person is an island.” I can easily think of over a hundred people who helped in the early days, those who complimented my strengths and filled in for my weaknesses, but I’ll highlight one. One thing I always recommend to other entrepreneurs is to undertake ElevationLab New Venture (previously known as Kauffman FastTrac when I took it in 2015). This program helps you develop your idea, or lay it to rest if it’s an overdone one or it’s not a good one. The teacher I had made all the difference, Rebecca Gubbels. Her humor, experience, tough love and real talk were critical to the formulation of Rightfully Sewn. It is a stronger entity because of her and what’s more, I can reach out to her whenever I need her, i.e., when navigating pandemic-induced programs like EIDL and PPP loans, or merging with another nonprofit.
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
Jennifer Lapka: Our organization stands out because it is earnest, genuine. We do what we say and say what we do. As an example, we were one of the first fashion/sewing entities in the Midwest that pivoted to sew masks solving for the pandemic PPE shortage. We were able to fundraise nearly $300,000 in a matter of months to keep paying our staff and buy fabric from American-based vendors thereby producing over 40,000 masks (at approximately $7 each), which we donated to hospital systems, nonprofits and social protest groups. All of this happened because our community believed we could and would do it. It was at a time when it was common to read articles about PPE pop-up businesses that took people’s money without ever delivering product and/or recruited employees who were poorly paid or exposed to virus spread.
You are a successful business leader. Which three character traits do you think were most instrumental to your success? Can you please share a story or example for each?
Jennifer Lapka: I always say listening is one of my superpowers. When starting a business, you have to listen to what the community needs and when running a business, you have to listen to what your clients and staff need. Another character trait is my ability to compromise, which cultivates long, fruitful relationships. Another thing I like to say is, “Scheduling and communication have been used to make war; I use them to make good.” So, I guess that makes four traits…
Often leaders are asked to share the best advice they received. But let’s reverse the question. Can you share a story about advice you’ve received that you now wish you never followed?
Jennifer Lapka: I prefer to live my life without regret, so no, I don’t have a story like this.
Which tips would you recommend to your colleagues in your industry to help them create a work culture in which employees thrive and do not “burn out” or get overwhelmed?
Jennifer Lapka: One of my past bosses, Jane Chu who was the president of the Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts who went on to be the head of the National Endowment for the Arts under the Obama administration, once told me that it can be harder to stop doing something than it is to start something new. In other words, we get into motion, into a pattern, we do things simply because that’s what we’ve always done. I assert we have to regularly evaluate: what is important right now? What isn’t? What can we stop doing? This practice helps team members from not burning out. Another tip: give team members what they need to succeed. Spend a copious amount of time at the get-go of any new person’s start so they understand the culture, projects and what is expected of them. Then, let them know they are free to go, you trust them and want them to feel empowered to make decisions and you are there for them if they get stuck.
What would you advise other business leaders to do in order to build trust, credibility, and Authority in their industry?
Jennifer Lapka: Share your knowledge, connections and other resources, as there is enough to go around. Be as generous as you can be with your time, but only as long as your own operation doesn’t suffer.
Can you help articulate why doing that is essential today?
Jennifer Lapka: I wouldn’t be where I am today without my mentors who have helped me better understand financial planning, staff management and many other facets of running my organization.
What are the most common mistakes you have seen CEOs & founders make when they start a business? What can be done to avoid those errors?
Jennifer Lapka: I see founders with what I call “tunnel vision” or they are “creating in a vacuum.” They get so obsessed with their own idea, they don’t stop to talk with stakeholders to see if it is actually a useful idea or whether the idea has already been done in the marketplace. A business has to be solving a problem and it has to be useful to many people. Another error I’ve seen is founders burning up everything around them all in the name of their idea: their savings, health and relationships. What good is an idea or business if you don’t have your own wellbeing or loved ones to share your life with?
Ok fantastic. Thank you for those excellent insights, Let’s now shift to the main focus of our interview about How to Successfully Ride The Emotional Highs & Lows Of Being An Entrepreneur. The journey of an entrepreneur is never easy, and is filled with challenges, failures, setbacks, as well as joys, thrills and celebrations. This might be intuitive, but I think it will be very useful to specifically articulate it. Can you describe to our readers why no matter how successful you are as an entrepreneur, you will always have fairly dramatic highs and lows? Particularly, can you help explain why this is different from someone with a “regular job”?
Jennifer Lapka: Being an entrepreneur has been the most gratifying, thrilling, excruciating and humbling experience I’ve yet had in my life. To have people understand my vision and monetarily back it whether it be through a crowdfunding campaign, a grant, a product purchase, working here, or attending an event, is gratifying. To watch Amna, a young Syrian woman, as she received her Seamstress Training Program certificate with her husband and children looking on and then a job offer thereafter, it is thrilling. To wonder if the entity would fail and the entire staff would out of jobs due to an elongated pandemic, is excruciating. To make it through and to now be expanding in staff, equipment, space and capability is humbling.
Being a founder or top leader is indeed different from a regular job, as you experience a tremendous amount of pressure because there is no one else “to pass the buck to.” I always placed quite a bit of pressure on myself in all of my past work positions, but this is different. I’m ultimately responsible for everything and everyone and I take that incredibly seriously.
Do you feel comfortable sharing a story from your own experience about how you felt unusually high and excited as a result of your business? We would love to hear it.
Jennifer Lapka: This month we started new team members hailing from Afghanistan, DR Congo, Mexico, the U.S. and Syria. Before they arrived, I learned to say hello, thank you and goodbye in their languages to make them feel more welcome (I plan to learn more!) They each seemed pleasantly surprised. We discussed a future where the fashion industry takes better care of its workers and the environment. Our leadership team spent copious time developing an orientation and training plan so it was an organized, calm and pleasant experience for the newcomers. It all made me feel so high – to be able to fulfill our impact: create jobs and opportunity through the business of fashion – to genuinely connect with people and to offer them an inclusive, positive, safe workplace.
Do you feel comfortable sharing a story from your own experience about how you felt unusually low, and vulnerable as a result of your business? We would love to hear it.
Jennifer Lapka: We invest a lot of time and energy in the recruitment phase for the Seamstress Training Program. We work closely with case managers at our partner social service agencies to identify potential candidates. We then interview the candidates, have them do a sewing test and also assess their mathematical, ruler and English comprehension. Not all potential candidates are taken as we have a limit of students based on the classroom size. The selected participants come through our 10-week program for free and receive careful teaching from a professional instructor, materials and extra tutelage from classroom mentors and interns. When the program concludes, we host a graduation party and a jobs fair. Occasionally, there are female graduates who decide to not enter the workforce due to childcare issues. It is disheartening as they took up one of the limited class spots that could have been offered to someone else. It is disheartening as our funders give us monetary support to get people into jobs so when this happens, the statistics we have to report are negatively affected. It is disheartening that in our country, affordable and safe childcare is always one of the biggest obstacles for women who want to enter the workplace, no matter what their socioeconomic status is.
Based on your experience can you tell us what you did to bounce back?
Jennifer Lapka: We have done what we can to improve the program’s recruitment phase in order to identify those who are most ready for the program: educating our partner organizations and potential candidates that the end goal is employment. But ultimately, I have to remind myself and our team members that we cannot control other people’s actions or circumstances and we cannot help everyone. We just have to keep doing our best.
Ok super. Here is the main question of our interview. What are your “Five Things You Need To Successfully Ride The Emotional Highs & Lows Of Being An Entrepreneur”? Please share a story or an example for each.
Ironically, my five things are not actually business-related…
Work out – I work out at least three times a week…yoga, weights, cardio, walking
Go home – maintain life/work balance so you don’t burn out
Nurture your private relationships – spend time with the people/pets who you love the most
Eat well – good in, good out – if you eat well, your blood sugar will stay balanced and so will your mood and ability to make sound decisions
Sleep – don’t use gadgets after 6 p.m. and get eight hours of sleep at
We are living during challenging times and resilience is critical during times like these. How would you define resilience? What do you believe are the characteristics or traits of resilient people?
Jennifer Lapka: Resilience is the ability to keep going after each new challenge arises. Resilient people have a little bit of each of these traits: stubbornness, patience, long-view vision and positivity. They are also not afraid to ask for help when they need it.
Did you have any experiences growing up that have contributed to building your resiliency? Would you mind sharing a story?
Jennifer Lapka: My grandmother and I would go to craft fairs together when I was a child. If there was something I liked, she wouldn’t buy it for me. Instead, we would study how it was made and then we’d go buy the materials for it and make it ourselves. This was formative for me… she taught me that anything I saw, I could do… that work reaps rewards.
In your opinion, do you tend to keep a positive attitude during difficult situations? What helps you to do so?
Jennifer Lapka: In general, yes. To be positive is deeply rooted from my childhood, thanks to my mother and grandmother’s personalities. It also helps to think back and muse about all the difficult things our organization has already overcome to be where we are today. Other times, I think about what a former colleague said during a difficult situation we were sharing: “This, too, shall pass.”
Can you help articulate why a leader’s positive attitude can have a positive impact both on their clients and their team? Please share a story or example if you can.
Jennifer Lapka: I read once that a leader can’t afford to have a bad day. That’s a lot of pressure to put on a human, to not ever have a bad day. But by and large, it is true. The leader sets the pace, sets the culture, sets the mood. We recently went through a merger with a larger, older nonprofit. I took great care to display calm, transparency and positivity during the process and I’m seeing that reflected back to me by the team.
Ok. Super. We are nearly done. What is your favorite inspirational quote that motivates you to pursue greatness? Can you share a story about how it was relevant to you in your own life?
Jennifer Lapka: “You can go faster alone, but further together.” Rightfully Sewn was built by many, many people coming together with a shared vision for improved lives and an improved industry. I like to slow down and think about some of them from time to time. They each have their own skills and dreams and for a time, they coalesced with our organization to make it more relevant, more impactful. That motivates me to keep going.
How can our readers further follow you online?
Jennifer Lapka: @rightfullysewn on IG, LI and FB
This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for the time you spent with
this. We wish you continued success and good health!